DFW Music News

An Oral History of J&J's Ol' Dirty Basement

J&J's Ol' Dirty Basement has hosted some pretty wild shows over the years.
J&J's Ol' Dirty Basement has hosted some pretty wild shows over the years. Ed Steele

“It leaks, it squeaks, it creaks” is how regulars describe a longtime cherished Denton venue beneath a pizza joint's basement with its musical history memorialized in the graffiti on its walls by local and touring bands. A small, DIY space with no elevated stage, it’s been a long-serving, nurturing spot for new and up-and-coming artists (and a place known for its ever-available Schlitz beer). But to the shock of many who’ve frequented this downtown venue for years, J&J’s Pizza and its “ol' dirty basement,” the name regulars have lovingly given it for two decades, will shutter Aug. 10, this time for good.

But it won’t go quietly. In a memorial of our own, we talked to several local musicians, regulars, promoters and those who kept the music playing over the years for a walk down memory lane.

Charlie Hunter (a Basement regular, Founder of I Love Math Records)
“I've spent countless hours in that basement, soaking up new music, old favorites and an unhealthy amount of light beer. But the most important thing that ever happened to me down there was a quiet show in late ’08 or early ’09. New Science Projects (one of my all-time Denton favorites) was returning from a tour, so Dale Jones [vocalist for New Science Projects] booked a show in the basement with his touring act, Spooky Folk, on a random weeknight.

"I've seen plenty of acts down there that aren't my cup of tea, so when a shaggy Kaleo Kaualoku [Spooky Folk] took the stage, armed with what appeared to be a toy guitar and a ukulele, I didn't have high expectations. Turns out, I didn't know shit about shit. I sat glued to this man, as the stories and characters and emotions came pouring out of him. I was born again that night.

"I immediately went up to Michael Briggs to see if Gutterth Records was planning to put out a Spooky Folk album. When he told me they weren't, I text-checked my bank account (mobile phones were different back in the olden days) and figured out how many shifts at IHOP it would take to get it done, and that was it. I Love Math Records was born at that moment, even before I approached [Kaualoku] about putting out a record. I've gone on to throw plenty of shows and album releases at the ODB, but it's that time I was sitting in a plastic chair, tipsy and in awe at hearing "I am a Ghost" for the first time that I'll always remember when I walk down those stairs.

Chris Welch (Pinebox Serenade)
“We played there a lot in the early days. I think we played our second show there [2004-05]. A couple of shows stand out to me. One was Wally Campbell as Mr. Wonderful, Pinebox Serenade, Current Leaves and the Spitfire Tumbleweeds. It was a great night of that era of Denton music. It went late, and Jaime [Ham, the owner] just gave up and brought the 12 packs of Schlitz down for the bands. You got free beer and pizza when you played there, and a lot of us were young and broke at the time. So, you knew if you played there, you could at least get fed.

"The second show I think of, was a 35 Denton show. When I was asked where we wanted to play, I said J&J's. It was packed, and everyone was dancing and having a good time. It was a vital part of the music scene. Over the last year, I've started a punk/indie band, and I was looking forward to playing there.”

Lily Taylor (musician, KUZU DJ)
“I've played several shows in the basement of J&Js. One that stands out in my memory is a particular 35 Denton event in March of 2013. The promoters mistook my noise project Ulnae for the band Bludded Head, as both acts featured the talents of Darcy Neal (and who could be bothered with actually listening to the submission links, right?) At the very same time slot, my solo performance was scheduled at a different venue down the block. We made it work in the end, and I was able to perform both lineups with a little hustle and a slight lineup change.

"That night, I met Chad Walls (Abbreviations, Triangulum, Eyes Wings and Many Other Things, Dallas Ambient Music Night sound technician) who was working the soundboard. This lineup was the loudest show I had ever attended, and that's saying something. The bass frequencies had nowhere to go in that little room. I remember my pants shaking and rattling on my body. I also remember the music being so powerful, feeling like I was in just the right place at just the right time.”

Petra Kelly (Spooky Folk)
"J&J's was Spooky Folk's first show with our drummer Chris. I think Dirty Birds (Teddy Waggy and Paul Alonzo, now from Midnight Opera, and Eli Browning) and Manned Missiles were on that bill.

"Now that I'm a boring adult, I don't really consider Schlitz and pizza proper compensation for playing music, but that time in my youth when I did was pretty fucking special

"I remember when Ryan Thomas Becker had his CD release in the basement and he and his mother served everyone toast."

Matthew Sallack (Artist/Owner, Otter Illustration)
"I have been doing shows in the J&J's basement since I was in a rock band when I was 17. This was almost 20 years ago. I hosted my 29th monster-themed b-day party there. I had my first solo exhibition a few years ago called The Problem With Plushies.

"The thing that makes [the basement] so special is the inclusive nature and the fact that there are few places so accessible in Denton. Most places charge a lot, whereas J&J's, they give you a few slices for performing. I have been involved in all sorts of shows down there, punk-rock, low-fi hip-hop, spoken word, pretty much everything. It will be sorely missed."

The Wee Beasties at J&J's Ol' Dirty Basement in 2002. - KERRY WILLIAMS
The Wee Beasties at J&J's Ol' Dirty Basement in 2002.
Kerry Williams

Richard Haskins (Wee Beasties)
“When J&J’s moved in, I used to call them every week asking when they were going to start doing shows. My favorite moment, personally, was seeing Bake Sale play. They were an awesome band from Memphis. Like surfy dream pop. All-female band. They absolutely destroyed. You never knew what you were going to see down there. They just leave you alone to play your show without judgment. There's not ever been a place like that before or since in Denton.”

Matt Grigsby (musician)
"I was fortunate enough to release my first record to a packed J&J's basement. I've played there over a dozen times since, often to an empty room, but I have no regrets. The ol' dirty basement is a quintessential Denton experience that will be sorely missed. There is no better spot to drink your weight in Schlitz."

Ryan Williams (Baptist Generals, Claire Morales)
"My favorite thing about J&J's was the continuity it provided the Denton music community when they moved into the old Gatti's basement. That and the commercial with the gymnastics."

Michael LaCroix (Kind Beats)
"I have a very special place in my heart for this venue. It was the first place I threw my own show, an album release party, and it was the place where I hosted over 20 shows throughout my years in Denton. The basement was always a place where we could do, really, whatever we wanted. One time we covered it in bamboo and made it like a jungle for our compilation release show. Another time we created a maze throughout the basement with small spaces filled with different video game consoles.

"It was a place where high school kids could get their licks in and learn how to organize and play a show. For many people, it was the first place that their music had a home in Denton. I will miss it dearly, and hope that somewhere along the way, another local venue will pick up the torch."

Jesse Thompson (Levi Cobb & The Big Smoke)
"I met one of my future bandmates for the first time at a basement show back in 2011 or 2012. Back then you could smoke in the basement and they had Schlitz cans for 2 or 3 dollars. I met a lot of musical friends down there. It was a place for experimentation.

"There was always a good mix of people getting their start performing, well-established local bands and DIY touring acts. There was nothing else in town quite like the energy of a packed, smoky basement show. I may have seen most of my favorite local artists dozens of times each but the basement shows always stand out."

click to enlarge Spiderweb Salon hosted several standing room only events at the Basement. - COURTESY OF COURTNEY MARIE
Spiderweb Salon hosted several standing room only events at the Basement.
Courtesy of Courtney Marie

Courtney Marie (Spiderweb Salon)
"We did dozens of shows in that basement over the past nine years, all variety shows featuring poetry, music, storytelling, theatre, dance, performance art, etc. We hosted a sci-fi-themed event called Spider Con there years ago ... and many 'electronic experiments' which brought together writers and musicians in interesting ways. We made magic down there. When it closed the first time, we had a full blown funeral service for the basement."

Eric Michener (Fishboy)
"I’d jump at the chance to play solo shows at J&J's when the band was busy, maybe test some new songs and challenge myself to hold the attention of the audience. One night I closed my set by leading everyone through the back hall and out on Pecan Street singing the main notes of the Jurassic Park theme. One night I ran 30 laps around the two center brick columns, collapsing in exhaustion. I’d stand on the pool table, on the church pews, I’d raise the house lights and speak directly into the eyes of the small crowd. It's a room with endless possibilities.

"A few times I played on the first floor, which brought its own challenges in trying to engage hungry dinner patrons that wanted nothing to do with music, turning the set into a weird mix of music and comedic crowd work. I was once heckled by an old man eating a bowl of spaghetti and proudly took my lumps.

"Looking over this show list I see so many first shows I played with bands from across the country that are now close friends. The basement offered a zero risk space to take chances on strangers, give them a “stage,' a free meal and share the greatness of Denton."

Matt Farmer (former sound engineer for J&J's)
"I went in looking for a job, and Andie asked me if I could run sound — I immediately said yes, even though I actually had no idea how to run live sound at all. Luckily for me, there wasn't much to it when I started. The board was old and dusty. Sometimes it would just shut off, and you'd have to jiggle the power cable to get it running again. I loved it.

"The first time I met Joe Vulpitta [then co-owner], he was on the phone taking an order. I passed by him to clock in, and as soon as he hung up he looked me right in the eyes and said in a thick Chicago accent, "You're just gonna walk into my pizza shop and not even fucking say hi to me?" I was mortified. He then laughed and yelled to the kitchen, 'I need a spaghetti with no balls!'

"Eventually, my J&J's family started to feel as close as my own blood. This feeling was amplified after Joe passed away on my 21st birthday. As a young person still figuring out how to be an adult, I learned so much from Jaime and Andie [Lotspeich, manager]. Working there became a significant part of my identity. I formed relationships with people that are now some of my best friends. I became a part of an incredible community much larger than the venue's capacity. It's where I played my first show in Denton as a teenager. It's where I kickstarted my City Council campaign in 2019. It's where my wife and I had our wedding reception in 2020.

"It's really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that it won't be there anymore, but regardless of what happens, the spirit of that old dirty basement will be with me for the rest of my life."

Upcoming concerts at J&J's Ol' Dirty Basement:
Goodbye J&J's: A Waitsgiving Release Show
The Official J&J's Farewell Fest
Wee Beasties on Aug.10 (final-ever show)
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Diamond Rodrigue
Contact: Diamond Rodrigue